Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dispensationalism and the problem of multi-generational parenting

An army which is told that it must suffer defeat, that any sign of victory is an illusion or else a lure into a subsequent defeat, that victory must be the Devil’s, will be a defeated army....

Those who view God’s history as a giant scythe which will cut down all the works of Christians on the final day (or rapture) except for internal, “spiritual” works, cannot plant cultural. seeds with the same confidence, and therefore the same enthusiasm, as those who view themselves as future corpses whose work is long-term capital that can survive. On the day of judgment, the garden produced at last by Christian discipline and Christian capital will not experience a silent spring.
” Gary North


IU I used to think there was little or no point in thinking about the spiritual health of the next generation. Believing that Jesus was about to come back soon, I thought there was no point in thinking about future. Moreover, I thought, God deals with individuals, not with families, nations and cultures. Ergo, the idea behind these "birthday walks" was a throwback to the Old covenant, where God still dealt corporately with tribes, nations and cultures.

How wrong I was.

I began thinking about this again last year when someone took exception to comments I made in my review of Passionate Housewives. In that post I had written (reflecting my new understanding)
We are all familiar with the way feminism has undermined the integrity of the family, leaving many women feeling guilty, or at least defensive, if they choose to stay at home to be housewives. What is generally given less attention, however, is the way Christian motherhood has suffered grievously from within the ranks of the church. I am not referring to direct theological challenges from Christian teachers who think women ought to farm their children off to day care or go and pursue careers. That is just feminism in evangelical packaging and is easy enough to spot, though sadly that mentality is rampant even in the church.
What is more difficult to discern, however, are the multitudinous ways that the individualistic and dispensational theological paradigms have indirectly contributed to many Christian mothers abandoning their primary vocation. An entire evangelical culture has sprung up over the last two hundred and fifty years which sees salvation purely in terms of going to heaven when you die, with no understanding of the need to build a Christian civilization here on the earth that will last for thousands of years. Worse still, many Christians believe that the institutions and culture of Christendom are a Constantinian innovation and hardly a worthy goal for the 21st century church.
Failing to understand God’s purposes covenantally, we would prefer to wait to be ‘raptured’ away from the earth, working to get as many people saved in the meantime, than to seek God’s promised blessings on the thousands of descendents that come from those who love him. As a result, the concept of family and child-rearing has suffered grievously. Not seeing ourselves as links in a golden chain, both receiving and transmitting the traditions of the covenant community to the next generation, we fail to pour ourselves into our children in the way that we could. (As an aside, this relates to why I am against the ‘conversion experience’ model for children of believers, a topic I deal with here.)
Because of our failure to invest in the next generation, our children are falling away right left and centre, giving credence to the second edition of the Confession of Faith, presented to Parliament in 1658, which includes these words: “Wherever thou goest thou wilt hear men crying out of bad children – whereas indeed the source must be sought a little higher, ‘its bad parents – that make bad children -, and we cannot blame so much their untowardness as our own negligence of their education.”
The education we should seek to give our children, and which is central for successfully transmitting the faith to the next generation, is more than just the education of correct ideas. It is not enough to simply convey to our children the sense that Christianity is true. Neither is it enough to give them a Christian worldview that interconnects all knowledge into a Biblical philosophy. These are both necessary endeavours, but they are not sufficient. We must also strive to convey to our children the beauty of the Christian faith. If we are to be successful in transmitting our religion, we must show the next generation that the truth is lovely. Many Christian young people have willingly walked away from a faith they knew to be true because they were enticed by the illusory attractiveness of idols; but few people ever abandoned a faith they believed to be both true and beautiful.
In a facebook discussion over the above passage, I was pressed to expand on what I meant by the dispensational paradigm indirectly contributing to many Christian mothers abandoning their primary vocation. The person who challenged me, herself a dispensationalist, confessed to being "slightly offended" as what seemed to be a false caricature of a certain eschatological position. What follows is drawn from the ensuing discussion I had with a few ladies over facebook:
I know that you have felt “slightly offended” that I have spoken of dispensationalist theology indirectly leading to Christian mothers abandoning their primary calling. (Even so, Dorothy, I appreciate the very gracious way you have been handling yourself in this discussion.) Certainly my “bold, generalizing statement,” as you call it, has exceptions and there are many dispensationalists who are not like this, by God’s grace. It may help to know that I was speaking really of myself when I used to hold premillennial ideas, and other I have known who have explicitly stated that working to make the world a better place is like polishing brash on a sinking ship, and that we should EXPECT more and more children to apostatize because that means that Jesus’ return is nearer. I was so obsessed about it that I would sometimes feel guilty if I made a dentist appointment for the following year or saved for my children’s inheritance, because then I wasn’t having ‘faith’ that the Lord would come back.

When you have a large number of Christians hoping that conditions in the world will get worse and that the devil is the king of this world, then you have to wonder what incentive that gives them to be faithful in their own homes. Again, keeping in mind that I am not talking about ALL dispensationalistis here, and I am thankful that you have reminded me to make this important qualification, but I think an argument could be made that I am talking about those who are consistent with their eschatological paradigm.
Consider, dispensationalism, at least in its premillennial variety, affirms that unbelief and apostasy will increase, the gospel will be preached to all nations unsuccessfully, the Church will eventually lose influence, fail its mission and become corrupt. To make matters worse, at some point the anti-Christ will appear in the temple of Jerusalem, and he will become ruler of the world and persecute Jews and Christians. He will try to put the mark of the beast on everyone’s foreheads, and many Christians will be deceived into letting him do this. Then, when no one expects it, the, so-called, “rapture” will happen, in which Christians go to heaven while the rest of the world endures a seven-year period of tribulation (in the older historic non-dispensational premillennialism, the Church went through the tribulation). God eventually pours out His wrath on the earth until the battle of Armageddon, when Jesus returns physically to the earth and then the Millennium finally gets underway. When that happens, the literal Jewish temple will be rebuilt and the sacrificial system reinstated.

Now if we are truly consistent with holding that paradigm, then it seems that there are certain things that follow. Such prospects not only fail to provide an incentive for Christian cultural involvement but, in presenting the present physical earth as beyond God’s saving power, it solidifies the assumption that earthly culture is “secular” in the true Enlightenment sense, thus leading to a dualism of the most devastating sort. Because everything will get worse and worse, all we can do is watch impotently as the devil wins. In fact, if we are consistent, we should even hope that things get worse since that signals Christ’s imminent return. As one person, who holds this perspective, said to me, “I hope Iran creates worldwide disaster soon by letting off a nuclear bomb because then maybe the Lord will come back.”
For the consistent dispensational premillennialist, the purpose of the Christian’s mission is essentially negative: the best we can hope to do is avoid the mark of the beast, keep ourselves from the corruption and apostasy that will take over the world and the Church, and bide our time until the rapture.

The dispensationalist belief that the Church and culture are beyond reform this side of the rapture also breeds an isolationism, at least for those who live consistently with this eschatological paradigm. Thus, I have known evangelicals who, holding this view, intentionally withdrew from the world to practice an insular private Christianity that had little relevance to the public arena. Though evangelicals with this mentality may be involved in the political right (especially in America), their vision is necessarily truncated precisely because they do not, and indeed cannot, have a long-term vision for the Church and culture. As Os Guinness explains it, “the dispensational movement reinforces anti-intellec¬tual¬ism by its general indifference to serious engagement with culture. Put simply, it is a form of the earlier false polarization and shrunken pietism reinforced by a distracting preoccupation with the end times. . . . Dispensationalists at the popular level tend to overlook creation as they emphasize salvation . . . [exchanging] the visible present for the invisible future, and the normal and everyday for the dramatic and the apocalyptic. Little wonder that popular dispensationalism has cultural consequences. When the house is on fire, life is worth more than books and precious objects. When the end times are on the slipway, such cultural pursuits as art and music are frivolous. Where earlier Christians fell into dualism by placing the spiritual above the secular, contemplation above actions, “full-time Christian service” above ordinary life, and “soul saving” above study, many dispensationalists have followed the course of “end times” events with the consuming fascination of a betting man at a race track. In doing so they have virtually turned their backs on the world in which they live.”

I agree that a danger is that “the focus seems to lie so much on passing on the faith to the next generation - and the next generation being our children/within our families - that we forget about, or neglect those outside of our churches/families.” That is certainly a danger with those who hold to the position that I have been advocating. The danger is to become ingrown and so family-centered that we forget about being salt and light to the world out there.
But let's not forget that the danger goes both ways: either the focus can be so much on passing on the faith to the next generation that we neglect to witness to unbelievers, or we become so focused on witnessing to those outside that we neglect our responsibilities to our own families. Both are wrong, though the latter is worse.

You write that, “It is not about us, nor is it about pursuing blessings.... We are here as His ambassadors, to show the world reconciliation to God through Christ, not to set up a 'christian civilization'.” I guess my question to you would be: how can showing the world the good news of Christ be separated from the work of setting up a Christian civilization, seeing that the inevitable result of successfully evangelizing the world will be that a Christian civilization will emerge? When Jim Elliot and the other missionaries, and later some of their wives and sister, took the message of Christ to the Waidoni Indians in South America, the result was the emergence of a Waidoni Christian civilization that remains to this day. When Boniface took the message of Christ to the wild Germanic tribes, the result was a Christian civilization that remained for hundreds of years.
My point in these examples is that the work of evangelizing the world cannot be separated from the work of building Christendom, not only because the latter is the inevitable result of the former, but because by having the latter in view, it effects HOW missionaries do evangelism. For example, because Boniface believed that the success of his mission should be judged in terms of generations and centuries, not merely the fruit produced during one lifetime, he put mechanisms in place to assist the progress of the gospel after he was gone. This included planting schools to increase literacy so that the young could be more easily disciple and become strong in the Word. He also worked to bring to the barbaric tribes art, music and poetry. He established libraries and put men to work copying manuscripts so that the next generation would have access, not only to the Bible, but to other great works of literature.
Boniface did this because he knew nothing of the false dualism between building a Christian civilization and saving souls. The two things are distinguishable but they should never be divisible.
So much for the brief history lesson, but there are also good theological reasons for disputing the statement that, “It is not about us, nor is it about pursuing blessings.... We are here as His ambassadors, to show the world reconciliation to God through Christ, not to set up a 'christian civilization'." Contrariwise, I do believe the scriptures show that there is a legitimate place for claiming and expecting the blessings that God promises for the descendents of those who fear Him. He promises to bless us to thousands of generations, and it is not “focusing on ourselves” to try to appropriate that promise in our own families and communities.

The promises God has given to Christian parents are manifold. After articulating the glories of the new covenant in his wonderful sermon in Acts 3, Peter ends by declaring, “The promise is to you and to your children.” (Acts 3:39) In his ep...istle to the Corinthians Paul makes the point that if even one of the parents is a believer then the children are sanctified (1 Corinthians 7:14). Speaking of small children Jesus Himself declares that “of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Then there are all the wonderful promises given to the descendents of Abraham which are addressed “to you and your children” and these can be applied to Gentiles because Gentile believers have now been grafted in to God’s covenant family by faith (Rom. 11:17). The result of Gentiles coming into the covenant is that they are heirs of the covenantal laws and promises of the Old Covenant, including the Abrahamic blessing which always included the children born into covenant families. Paul seems to assume this by quoting promises from the Sinai law and applying them to Gentile children in his letter to the Ephesians (6:1-3). And then, finally, there are the great promises of the Psalms that faithful covenantal parenting will result in faithful children. See Psalm 128, for example, where we are told that he who fears the Lord and walks in His ways will be blessed and that this blessing will extend to his children.

So those are some of the promises of which I speak. These promises do not guarantee that a believer’s children will not fall away, just as the promises of salvation given to individuals do not guarantee that an individual will not fall away. Rather, these promises assume that one is taking and applying these promises by faith, which means faithful covenantal parenting, just as the promises of salvation assume that one is applying and appropriating scripture’s promises by faith which means faithful living.
Of course, believing parents can fail to pass on the covenantal blessings, like the generation that followed Joshua (Judges 2:10), and they can raise their children to worship idols (Ezekiel 16:20), but the normal pattern that scripture assumes is that believing parents will be faithful in parenting, which is why Paul makes faithful children a qualification for church leadership (1 Timothy 3:4-5).

As for the statements that have been made about Christ's kingdom not being of this world, I would recommend you read the resources I've put together at my post "Is Jesus’ Kingdom of This World?’". Some of the resources here interact with some of the comments that have been articulated in our discussion about Luke 17:20-21. The problem I perceive here is that while Linda has rightly recognized that the Kingdom of God is a physical earthly entity, she sees it all as being realized in the age to come. Certainly there is a strong “not yet” aspect to the Kingdom of God that the New Testament teaches. But the NT also reaches what we may call “realized eschatology”, namely that we even now have the firstfruits of what will later reach fiution. Many people read the Old Testament prophecies about the kingdom of God and see that there are lots of things that haven’t yet happened, and they conclude that the kingdom hasn’t come at all, that the devil is king of this world (as Linda has said), and so forth. This is not a new problem but was one that the Jews of Jesus’ day had to wrestle with. In the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus went to His own region of Nazareth where, in the synagogue, he read the traditional reading from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD; (Isa. 61:1-2)

At this point in the reading Jesus closed the book and sat down (Luke 4:20). This must have seemed very strange to Jesus’ listeners, for traditionally the reading would have continued. But Jesus stopped in the middle of the sentence. No wonder we are told that “the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him” (Luke 4:20). Then Jesus utters the following words: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:21).

If we review the things mentioned in this passage – the passage Jesus claims is now fulfilled - we will see that Jesus fulfils all of them. The Spirit of God was upon Him (Luke 3:22); He has been anointed to preach the good news to the poor (Mat. 4:23); He has a ministry of healing the brokenhearted (Mat. 4:23); He liberates those who are captive (Eph. 4:8); He opens the prison to those who are bound and He proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord. All these things can be said to be fulfilled, or at least partially fulfilled, in Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus’ miracles are the signs of the kingdom. (In fact, in the original Greek of John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles are always referred to as ‘signs.’)

What Jesus does not do are the things spoken of in the rest of this Isaiah passage which normally would have been read. The passage goes on to mention “the day of vengeance of our God”, various symbols which seem to indicate an end of suffering for God’s people, the restoration of desolate places, the elevation of God’s people [now those who are in Christ] above the Gentiles [read: uneblievers], and the fulfilment of the promise for God’s people to inherit the land. Jesus does not say of these things that they have been fulfilled in the people’s hearing.

So we see that Jesus fulfilled some of the criteria for the Messiah but not all the criteria. The most important aspects are left undone. Even those things which Jesus does fulfil are fulfilled only in part in a very localized region and not throughout the whole earth. So the question is, has Jesus really brought in the Messianic era or not? If not, how can Jesus legitimately be considered to be the Messiah?

Jesus’ answer to such questions seems to be this. “The Kingdom of God is indeed something that is yet to come (future). But you now see the firstfruits of that kingdom. I have fulfilled enough of the promises now for you to believe that I will fulfill the rest later.” This explains why Jesus and the Apostles sometimes speak of the kingdom of God as if it is yet to come while elsewhere they speak of the kingdom as if it has already arrived. It has already arrived in the sense that it has been inaugurated and the firstfruits of it have been given to mankind. That is why Jesus could say to the people, “surely the kingdom of God has come upon you [present]” (Mat. 12:28) and yet pray, “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven [future]” (Mat. 6:10). The Apostle Paul could both refer to the future appearing of the kingdom (2 Tim. 4:1) as well as say that the Lord has “conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love [present]…” (Col. 1:13).


So there is an already and a not yet. Now here’s where this relates to what I said earlier: through our own faith, worship, evangelism and strong covenantal communities, we can play a part in bringing about that which is still to come. Just as Adam was God’s vice regent in the task of bringing dominion to the earth, so we are God’s vice regents in bringing His kingdom fully to this world.
Just because supernatural power will be needed to bridge the gap between this world and the new heavens and the new earth does not mean that our labour is in vain or that there is discontinuity between what we do now and the condition that will exist then. N.T. Wright has some excellent words about this (our labour not being in vain) in his book Surprised by Hope. Even in the passage from Romans 8:16-25 that Linda cited, Paul goes directly on to apply this practically by showing the people how to anticipate in the present what the future reality will be, and it is precisely this present anticipation of future glory which creates the nexus of the realized eschatology that it a central feature of Jesus’ present earthly rule/kingdom.
I’ll say it again because this is crucial: it is precisely this present anticipation of future glory which creates the nexus of the realized eschatology that it a central feature of Jesus’ present earthly rule/kingdom.

Dixie quoted Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” in John 18:36. I was intrigued after I learned from a Greek scholar that in John 18:36 Jesus never said that his kingdom is not of this world. The RSV translates the verse closest... to the original: ‘My kingdom is not FROM this world.’ Christ’s kingdom is certainly of and for this world, but it does not arise out of or from this earth. It comes from heaven to the earth just like Jesus did. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, ‘thy kingdom come on earth…as it is in heaven’ (Mat. 6:10). The phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the gospels has this same underpinning, referring to the rule of heaven (that is, of God), being brought to bear in the present space-time world. This draws on the theological backdrop of passages like Daniel 7: 26-27 and is the same crowning vision we find in Rev. 11:15, (which is not a future description, by the way, but a present reality) where we are told that “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ…”

I have dealt with the subject of God's kingdom in my Bible overview lecture where I have tried to show how Christ present kingdom is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. It's a big and complex issue, but one that is worth understanding because of its practical value.

Further Reading

Building For God's Kingdom


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